This story is by Robert N. McManus and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Appearing out of hyperspace, the ships of the Chinese-American Hegemony arrived from a years-long mission to CNG2574 (Wu Zhong, or Cleveland, depending on your alliance). All sensors on the flagship Sun Tzu HAC 2020 scanned surrounding space. Alarms began wailing, warnings flashing across the bridge.
“Multiple bogeys to stern!” yelled First Officer Xhang.
“Shields up” Kane ordered.
“Incoming! One…Two…No! Six torpedoes!” screamed the Weapons Officer, “Two sixty degrees port aft, two more sixty degrees starboard aft!”
“Bow shields up! Stern shields coming on” reported the First Officer.
Explosions rocked the Sun Tzu as the first two torpedoes targeted the two main engines, crippling the ship for long distances. More explosions rocked the bridge as the four other torpedoes slammed into the weakened shields, overpowering them. More alarms added to the din of screams flashing warnings at every station on the bridge.
“Message incoming, Admiral” the AI informed Kane.
“Receive!”, Kane responded.
“Admiral Peter Kane! What an unfortunate situation in which to find one self”, the unfamiliar voice spoke with an air of superiority, “Perhaps I should introduce myself the unknown sender said as the video screen revealed a man of indeterminate age.
“Your corvettes are surrounded, and you, Admiral, are dead in space. Surrender to me, Admiral Anton Pushkin, is inevitable. I will accept your ships and crews for the Federated Russian Alliance.”
Exasperated, Kane ripped off his headset and slapped the GAME OVER pad , “What the hell!?!” as the scenes around him fell away to reveal darkened screens surrounding him.
“Who the hell are you? What is this?”
The player communication screen behind Kane irised on to reveal a young woman with very black skin, smiling broadly revealing a perfect set of teeth.
“Hi! I am Ngoki Burata. What is your name?”
Peter stood there, staring dumbfounded at the image before him. “No, really, who are you?”
“Hard to believe that you are beaten, or that you are beaten by a someone you might consider inexperienced? I have modulated my voice and appearance for the game, just as you have. Besides,” she laughed, “you are not as you appeared in role, either.”
Peter looked down at his soft waist, realizing all of the modulators were inactive, and he did not resemble the tall, lean, black-haired admiral. Instead, with soft middle and red hair, Peter was again the nurse who worked in the operating room. Recovering his sense of the present, Peter noticed that the girl was still on screen.
“How did you do that? Blind luck? I mean, no one knew we were coming through that gate! Not there, not then!”
“You still haven’t introduced yourself.”
“Okay! Peter Kane, same as my avatar. Sorry for the poor manners. It’s just that you caught me off guard”
“Hi Peter! We’ve played in the same scenarios before, and Admiral Kane has used his ‘surprise’ move several times, dropping into real space near Ganymede. So, needing defeat you before you could intervene with the fighting around the Earth, I positioned my ships hidden from your sensors by Ganymede’s mass.” Ngoki spoke and gestured, grinning the entire time.
Peter couldn’t take it, “But it wasn’t a surprise! We didn’t know the war was hot!”
“Well, it sure seemed like it surprised you, Peter!”
Realizing just how right she was did nothing to soothe his injured pride. Neither did the player rankings when posted the next day. His own name sank out of the top ten after losing a major vessel so quickly and ignominiously. Peter’s stomach sank as he scanned the list, found Ngoki ranked below him, but with an up arrow indicating mass approval. Dejected, Peter began to obsess over her victory instead of his tactics
Across the Atlantic, Ngoki was delighted to see her ranking improve as much as Peter’s had dropped. While she meant no harm in general, she really disliked his arrogance in the scenarios and his reaction to losing. Did he invest so much pride in his gaming achievements because that had become his self-worth? She had studied the concept of misplaced pride within this community in a sociology course. She had gotten into this gaming community as a way to relax and destress.
Peter had read the classics on war and strategy, especially The Art of War, hence the ship’s name in every scenario. Unfortunately, Peter had not absorbed his beloved writing as well as he thought. His understanding of the fundamentals was flawed enough that he used the same maneuvers too often
Ngoki also studied the art of war as practiced throughout history in preparation for her doctorate degree, and had compared them with great strategists and tacticians of other cultures. Sun Tzu she especially liked, hence her pride in defeating a ship named for him. Too bad that commander had not studied the general as well as she had, or he may have been a more formidable opponent.
Two months later, Ngoki signed for another scenario. Checking the listings, she saw that the same scenario was starred with an invitation icon. Opening the invite, Ngoki smiled to see that Peter Kane had sent it. Let’s see what Pushkin can do this time, she thought as she acknowledged.
Ngoki anticipated Peter would do his signature jump from hyperspace into a Jovian orbit near Ganymede. So far, he hadn’t varied from that. Her own ships placements would have to reflect her reasoning.
Peter’s ranking and his sense of honor while in character would not survive another humiliation. He would have to assume a defensive posture more quickly than before. Knowing that this not a guarantee, as the time came to make his jump, he also triggered the self-destruct sequence of his ship.
The Sun Tzu appeared as expected. Ngoki’s ships moved out of hiding to surround the Hegemony fleet. The Sun Tzu blazed into a sphere of rapidly expanding plasma that engulfed and destroyed her flag ship. Peter appeared on the comm screen, out of role, “Surprise!”